In the 19 years since the shooting at Columbine High School took the lives of 12 students and one teacher, more than 187,000 students in at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a school shooting.
But these interventions would not only further harm our students, but also threaten their civil rights.
In 10 years of teaching, I have seen the effects of punitive and reactive discipline on students. These are not the tactics that create safe and equitable schools or diminish the violence in their halls.
In 2014, the Obama administration aimed to address the school-to-prison pipeline with guidance that restated a schools need to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as encouraged schools to examine their discipline policies. The purpose was to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color and students with disabilities, both of whom receive disciplinary actions at disproportionately high rates, often for minor behavior offenses.
According to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black boys are three times more likely than White boys to be suspended, Black girls are six times more likely than White girls to be suspended, and students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as their peers to be suspended.
Most recently, a report released by the Government Accountability Office found that Black students represent 15.5 percent of all public school students, but constitute 39 percent of suspended students. This report also noted that these disparities cannot be explained by poverty levels, which makes it likely that racial bias—specifically differential treatment and perceived behaviors—is a considerable driver in discipline disparities.
In a recent meeting with Secretary Betsy DeVos, I shared with her that, as a teacher of predominantly students of color, I have come to find that there is more that we should be asking when we look to determine where this administration is failing to support and understand our students.
I told her that understanding our most challenging students comes down to a simple fact that we often overlook in our desire to “fix” negative behaviors.
Exclusion Does Not Educate
All behavior is communication.
It’s our responsibility to determine what our students are trying to tell us and to ask questions, such as: What does this child need? What may have happened to them, or what traumas are they carrying that impact behavior or brain development? How can I challenge my own perception or bias? How can I change my teaching or the classroom so it is more inclusive, both emotionally and culturally?
Each school must refocus to educate the whole child. Teachers can develop practices and design classrooms that are trauma-informed and encourage the building of trust with meaningful, connected relationships. Schools can implement stronger wrap-around supports, including more on-site mental health services, like counseling and small-group interventions.
Schools nationwide should be looking to curricula and resources, like social-emotional learning programs, both for universal classroom-use, as well as targeted student-use, including positive behavior intervention systems (PBIS) to focus on pro-social skill building.
All districts should begin to eradicate punitive, reactive discipline in favor of restorative justice. Students desperately need a comprehensive approach that is purposeful, impactful and maintains a school culture grounded in equitable, non-biased treatment.
The discipline guidance challenges us all—individual teachers, schools, districts, states and the nation—to look at students as individuals whom we aim to serve regardless of their behavior. We can no longer tolerate punitive, discriminatory discipline in our schools in the name of safety.
Suspension is not a tool.
Exclusion does not educate.
Our students are not criminals to be arrested or ignored.
We should arm teachers. Not with handguns, but with training to create school culture and community that supports rather than excludes. Arm us with access to school counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and guidance counselors to advocate for and serve the mental health needs of our students. Arm us with the tools to use culturally-responsive teaching, all while using a critical lens to look at our own bias. Arm all teachers with the knowledge to truly see our students as valued and known, who come to us with limitless potential.
In the years since Columbine, and now in the aftermath of Parkland, we must to be willing to embrace the solutions that will truly transform all schools into welcoming and inclusive institutions that keep students safe, treat them equitably and uphold their civil rights.